Hey turkey, want the inside scoop on the Rams training camp? Then don't miss the Turf Show Radio training camp spectacular! Tomorrow night, 6 p.m. central time. Here's the call-in and listening info.
Yesterday, we started looking at the burning issues facing the St. Louis Rams as the begin training camp this week. Our lens focused on the receivers yesterday, so we might as well stick with offense and take a look at the offensive line today.
With apologies to the fans who have spent the better part of the last two years talking about Marc Bulger, no part of the offense is as essential to the Rams rebuilding project as the offensive line. The new leadership at Rams Park spent considerable time and resources to upgrading this part of the team, making painful a painful decision to cut Orlando Pace, filled a hole in the middle by making C Jason Brown one of the highest paid players in the game, and using the second overall pick in the draft to pick Jason Smith, a talented OT who many believed had the most potential upside of any OT in a draft rife with them.
It's not just a big year for the new guys either. LG Jacob Bell, a pricey offseason addition in 2008, disappointed in his first year with the Rams, playing underweight and through injury to form one half of the weakest link, the middle, of the offensive line. Bell has to improve this season or risk losing his starting job. RG Richie Incognito, whose services were retained via restricted free agency, continued to show his nastiness and ability on the field, but he has to reign in the boneheadedness this season. Through the quirks of the CBA-less league, he'll be a RFA again after this season, but if he puts together a more complete game, getting the 26-year-old locked up with a long term deal will be a priority. And then there's Alex Barron. Accused of lacking professional interest in the game and his well-documented trouble with penalties, Barron has been moved to the left side, where many believe he has the tools to be more successful, thanks to a notable stint there filling in for an injured Pace in '07. He's been an adequate starter on the right throughout his career, having little in the way of injury. Early returns from spring practices have been good, but he's playing for the future of his career now.
Worst case scenario: Barron's performance on the left side too closely resembles his performance on the right side. His penalties consistently disrupt the offense's timing, and rushers brush him aside like a nuisance. Jason Smith, though loaded with talent, struggles in his first season in the NFL, particularly because of the transition to RT after plying his trade on the left side for so long. Guard play is one area the Rams have some security with quality depth like John Greco and Mark Setterstrom. An injury to C Jason Brown could leave the team scrambling. They can convert Incognito or Setterstrom, but the impact, while still acceptable, isn't the same.
Best case scenario: Barron finds a new passion for the game, and Smith does fine in his first season in the league. Together they give the Rams the best play from the tackle position that the team has had since Pace was in his prime. In the middle, a bulkier Bell, Jason Brown and Incognito clear super highway sized lanes for Steven Jackson, making the offense a threat every time they have the ball.
Most likely outcome: Barron makes the transition to LT, and does a good job protecting Bulger's blindside, not Orlando Pace in his prime good, but well above average. The new coaching staff helps him find his inner peace and cut down on the number of penalties. Don't expect the flags to disappear totally. On the other side, Smith turns in solid rookie performance, not airtight, but still reassuring his place as the team's future LT. In the middle, the line combination does a fine job, proving to be the real asset many think the unit can be. It's hard not to imagine a Rams line without injuries, but they're unlikely to be quite as decimating as they have been in the past. In that case, the Rams have some good depth guys in Adam Goldberg, Greco and Setterstrom, as well as some intriguing prospects brought in as undrafted rookies such as Roger Allen and Phil Trautwein.
What to watch: Keep an eye on Barron's focus and intensity through camp, that will say lots about how well he's putting his talent to use. Intensity isn't such a problem for Smith, who by all accounts is a great leader, but watch how he handles contact as well as working out of the three point stance. I'm really not at all worried about the middle of the line so much, but whether or not Bell's offseason work produced results should be evident in camp. The guys vying for backup spots make for an interesting subplot.